Do not fear the rise of world-class science in Asia

Charles Leadbeater and James Wildson – The Financial Times

Published: October 12 2005 Copyright The Financial Times
On the edge of Bangalore, at the home of Biocon, one of India’s most successful biotechnology companies, men and women in white coats wander through manicured gardens. There are 1,400 employees on Biocon’s campus and more than 60 per cent have a higher degree. They cost roughly one- tenth of their equivalents in Munich or Cambridge, they speak flawless English and they are available 24 hours a day at the end of a high-speed data line.
Das Goutham, one of Biocon’s heads of research, is bullish about India’s potential as a hub for research and development: “Look, if only 5 per cent of Indians were like us, we could have a scientific labour force the size of the entire UK population.” Even with a discount for hyperbole, he has a point.
We used to know where new scientific ideas would come from: the top universities and research laboratories of large manufacturing companies based in Europe or the US. While production was dispersed among global networks of just-in-time suppliers, it was assumed that more knowledge- intensive tasks would stay at home.
All that is changing fast. As globalisation moves up a gear, ideas are emerging in unexpected places and flowing around the world as easily as money and commodities, carried by a mobile diaspora of knowledge workers. This shift is most visible in Asia. Countries such as China, India and South Korea are fast becoming world-class centres for research, particularly in emerging fields such as stem cell biology and nanotechnology.
The US and Europe are still the major sources of scientific papers but, according to a recent survey by Thomson ISI, the research analysts, Asia’s share rose from 16 per cent in 1990 to 25 per cent in 2004. Another study by Amsterdam University places China second to the US in the number of papers published in top nanotechnology journals. If these trends continue, Asia will be publishing more science than the US within 10 to 15 years.
Yet such numbers fail to convey the full significance of the changes under way in Asian science. China’s spending on R&D has trebled in seven years and is predicted to rise from 1.2 per cent of gross domestic product to 2 per cent by 2010. India now pumps out 260,000 engineers a year and its number of engineering colleges is due to double to 1,000 by 2010. Quantity does not necessarily equal quality, but the Indian Institutes of Technology are ranked among the world’s best universities.
In parallel with this strengthening of the science base, China and India are benefiting from a move towards “offshore innovation”. The first wave of offshoring saw manufacturing shift gradually to the low-wage economies of the east. A second wave saw thousands of back office and call centre jobs being created in India. Now, R&D is increasingly being outsourced or co-located overseas and dozens of hi-tech firms have opened labs in China or India. According to Harry Shum, who runs Microsoft’s research centre in Beijing: “For us, it’s always been about finding the best people. China has 1.3bn brains. The question is how you make them truly creative, truly innovative. This is the key to China becoming a real superpower in science.”
There is a tendency among politicians to see these growing scientific capabilities as a threat – a manifestation of what some have dubbed the “challenge of Chindia”. But retreating into a scientific version of protectionism is not an option. More innovation in Asia does not mean less in Europe. Alongside new sources of competition, there will also be new opportunities for collaboration: the global effort to unravel the genetic code of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) virus is an example. We need to develop better mechanisms for orchestrating R&D across international networks and supporting scientists in Europe to collaborate with their counterparts in Asia.
Above all, our response must be based on a more sophisticated analysis of shifts in the geography of science. Politicians have concocted “Chindia” seemingly regardless of these countries’ many differences. And the legacy of our colonial mindset makes us surprised by what is happening.
Yet when Europe was in the grip of the dark ages, Koreans were experimenting with metallic printing presses, Indians had developed sophisticated mathematics and the Chinese were using gunpowder. So, in some respects, it is back to the future: the original scientific powers are reawakening.
The writers lead a project on China, India and the New Geography of Science, which is launched this week by the think-tank Demos

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